Thursday, August 02, 2012

Opening Up Old Wounds

Cast of Walang Sugat: (from left) Lou Veloso, Remus Villanueva, Jelson Bay, Noel Rayos, Cris Vilonco and Noemi Manikan-Gomez

Recently, local stages have been graced by foreign grand theatrical productions, which are not only spectacular, but well-known and beloved as well. And there are more coming, attracting more people to appreciate theater. While this is a very welcome development, we must not neglect our local productions, which are just as worthy of the attention and appreciation, nor forget the local dramatic forms.
Tanghalang Pilipino, the resident theater company of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the premiere artistic and cultural institution in the country, continues to provide cultural nourishment as it opens its 26th season with a sarsuwela. This should not be missed as the old theater form, which became popular in the country in the late 19th century to the early 20th century, is rarely seen these days, and this is an opportunity to get acquainted with it.
Eminent theater and film scholar Nicanor Tiongson defines sarsuwela in the Philippines as “a play with songs and dances usually written in prose, containing from one to five acts, depicting the vagaries of romantic love among idealized Filipino characters, and often incorporating contemporary social, political, economic or cultural issues for relevance and interest.”
The sarsuwela, Tiongson says, is not indigenous though, but came from the Spanish zarzuela. The zarzuela, a form of musical theater first presented to the court, originated in Spain and spread to its colonies, including the Philippines, which developed their own traditions. It was introduced to the Philippines in the late 19th century and became popular, performed in different regions and languages in the country. Contrary to the komedya, also introduced by the Spaniards, which is didactic, the zarzuela is primarily for entertainment, usually a love story and has formulas.

Villonco and Manikan-Gomez play mother and daughter

The Filipinized sarsuwela is also influenced by the saynete, a one-act comic skit, which according to Tiongson, “featured ordinary characters, colloquial dialogue, early humor, and lively songs and dances—all of which later to reappear as characteristics of the native sarswela.”
By the turn of the 20th century, the form was infused  with nationalism and used as a vehicle for subversion against American rule. With the advent of other forms of entertainment and technology, it died down. Now and then, the sarsuwela is being performed by contemporary theater groups, and there is sporadic interest in its revival and study.
The most popular and significant of them is Walang Sugat (Without wound).
Tiongson related: “The rise of the sarswela as the newest form of entertainment, however, was not uncontested. In practically all the regions where the sarswela rose, komedya actors, directors, and playwrights banded together to defend the theatrical supremacy they had enjoyed for centuries. In Manila, the conflict came to a head when Severino Reyes, considered the father of the Tagalog sarswela, presented a play entitled R.I.P. (1902) which attacked the komedya for its escapism. Believing that the sarswela was the more ‘artistic’ and ‘truthful’ form of theater, Reyes wrote and staged the Tagalog sarswela, Walang Sugat (Not wounded) in 1902.The latter’s success established the sarswela as the premiere theater form in Manila from 1902 to the 1930s.”
Walang Sugat saw production again in the late 1960s by the Zarzuela Foundation of the Philippines. The Bulacan-based community theater group Barasoain Kalinangan Foundation staged Walang Sugat for the University of the Philippines’ Sarsuwela Festival in February 2009. In 2010, Tanghalang Ateneo of the Ateneo de Manila University staged Walang Sugat. Now, Tanghalang Pilipino is staging this classic from August 9 to 26, 2011, at the CCP’s Tanghalang Aurelio V. Tolentino.

Carlitos Siguion-Reyna directs the classis sarsuwela

What further makes this production interesting is it is the theater directorial debut of film director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna, who is currently teaching film in Singapore.     
“I’ve long wanted to direct an opera or a book musical, that is, narrative with dialogue and integrated production numbers, onstage. In fact, I’ve had talks with several people, but plans didn’t materialize for one reason or another. As often the case, production funding has been an issue,” Siguion-Reyna revealed. “Earlier this year, a concrete offer and opportunity came when Nanding Josef (Tanghalang Pilipino’s artistic director) approached me to do Walang Sugat for Tanghalang Pilipino. He knows my film work and had heard good things about ‘Aawitan Kita sa Makati,’ a concert event that has evolved into a sung-through musical narrative, which I have been directing when I can and when I am in Manila, almost every month since 2005.”
The material being a musical did not pose any difficulty for Siguion-Reyna, having grown up in a musical family. His mother is singer and actress Armida Siguion-Reyna, who spearheaded the long-running musical television program Aawitan Kita, and his niece is singer-actress Cris Villonco, who is incidentally playing the lead female role of Walang Sugat.
Aside from working with a large cast, Siguion-Reyna said there was just little adjustment directing for the stage, which he commented is not at all different from film directing. Moreover, he got to appreciate more the directorial process and had the opportunity to work “with a great artistic team.”
“I’m also excited by collaborating with the accomplished artistic staff and a highly talented cast, by working with longer dramatic arcs, and finally by exploring the continuing struggle between change and tradition that lies at the heart of Walang Sugat,” he said.
Siguion-Reyna admitted having not seen past productions of Walang Sugat and is relying on his own research and consultation with Tiongson, who looked over the libretto and added some lines.
For this production, Siguion-Reyna said he wants to “explore the darker side of the material, especially in getting freedom and independence and how to stay in power.” He will also be exploring “the divisions in society not along class lines but by self-interest lines” and try to show “the deceptions we do to get what we want” and “the manipulations and fabrications which still happens today especially in politics.” These, he said, are what make Walang Sugat contemporary, aside from the story of love and the sense of nationalism the play wants to foment.
“Whether I succeed or not, the exploration of that challenge has been a rewarding journey for me,” commented Siguion-Reyna.
Walang Sugat stars Cris Villonco as Julia, Noel Rayos as Tenyong, Antonio Ferrer (who was also in the Ateneo de Manila University production of Walang Sugat) as Rayos’s alternate, Noemi Manikan-Gomez as Julia’s mother, Bodjie Pascua and Lou Veloso as Tadeo, Jennifer Villegas and Jean Judith Javier as Monica, Red Nuestro and Jonathan Tadioan as Lucas, Gino Ramirez as Miguel, and Jelson Bay as Padre Teban. They will be accompanied by an ensemble from the Tanghalang Pilipino’s Actors Company.
Walang Sugat opens the season, which has the theme “Truth and Consequence.” Three more productions complete the season. Layeta Bucoy’s Walang Kukurap, about corruption in Philippine society, is slated for September and October at Tanghalang Huseng Batute, with Tuxqs Rutaquio directing. On October, Chris Millado will direct Stageshow, written by the late TV, film and theater actor, director and playwright Mario O’Hara, at the Tanghalang Aurelio V. Tolentino, which will be an official entry to the National Theater Festival in November. Closing the season is Rody Vera’s adaption of the Bikol epic Ibalong into a dance and musical production, with direction by Rutaquio, music by Carol Bello, choreography by Agnes Locsin and Alden Lugnasin, and production design by Leeroy New.

Noel Rayos and Jonathan Tadioan

Tickets are now available at Ticketworld. Call 891-9999. For further inquiries and ticket reservations, contact Cherry Bong at 832-1125 locals 1620 and 1621, facsimile number 832-3661, mobile number 0917-7500107 or 0918-9593949, wireless landline 218-3791, or e-mail

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